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Laughing Matters

This month, Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin and Phyl­lis Root, the usu­al hosts of this col­umn, have invit­ed Kari Pear­son to share her rec­om­men­da­tions for fun­ny pic­ture books.

Kari Pearson

Kari Pear­son

Let’s play a game! It’s called Funny/Not Fun­ny. It goes like this:

Fun­ny: Eat­ing greasy bloaters with cab­bage-and-pota­to sog (see: How Tom Beat Cap­tain Najork and His Hired Sports­men)

Not Fun­ny: Shov­el­ing gigan­tic snow­drifts out of my dri­ve­way into piles almost as tall as myself.

Laugh­ing mat­ters, as any­one who has sur­vived a Min­neso­ta win­ter will tell you.

Whether you’re snow­bound or not, I hope you will enjoy the warmth and wit this quirky col­lec­tion of pic­ture books has to offer. Some of them are old (look for them at your library or online through Alib­ris), oth­ers are new­er. Most impor­tant­ly, all are guar­an­teed to be more hilar­i­ous than dis­cov­er­ing you have to kick your own front door open from the inside because it has frozen shut overnight in a bliz­zard (file under: not fun­ny). Not that that hap­pened, because that would be ridicu­lous.

The Big Orange SplotThe Big Orange Splot by Daniel Pinkwa­ter (Scholas­tic, 1977)

It all starts with The Big Orange Splot. More specif­i­cal­ly, with a seag­ull who is car­ry­ing a buck­et of orange paint (no one knows why), which he drops onto Mr. Plumbean’s house (no one knows why). Unfazed, Mr. Plumbean allows the splot to remain and goes about his busi­ness, much to the neigh­bors’ cha­grin. On this neat street such things sim­ply aren’t done. Even­tu­al­ly, Plumbean agrees that this has gone far enough. He buys some paint and gets to work cor­rect­ing the prob­lem.

Overnight, the big orange splot is joined by small­er orange splots, stripes, pic­tures of ele­phants and lions, steamshov­els, and oth­er images befit­ting a rain­bow jun­gle explo­sion. “My house is me and I am it,” Plumbean tells his flab­ber­gast­ed neigh­bors. “My house is where I like to be and it looks like all my dreams.” But Plumbean doesn’t stop there. Palm trees, frangi­pani, alligators…nothing is too out­landish for his new dream house. “Plumbean has popped his cork, flipped his wig, blown his stack, and dropped his stop­per” the neigh­bors exclaim in dis­may. They go about hatch­ing a plan to get things back to nor­mal on their neat street. But as they soon dis­cov­er, once a Big Orange Splot appears, there’s no going back. Plumbean’s unbri­dled imag­i­na­tion far out­strips even their most ardent­ly held pedes­tri­an sen­si­bil­i­ties. Wigs have only begun to flip.

Nino Wrestles the WorldNiño Wres­tles the World by Yuyi Morales (Roar­ing Brook, 2013)

Seño­ras y Señores, put your hands togeth­er for the fan­tas­tic, spec­tac­u­lar, one of a kind…Niño!” So begins the most improb­a­ble lucha libre wrestling com­pe­ti­tion of all time. Our hero is Niño, a diminu­tive boy in a red mask with more than a few tricks up his (non-exis­tent) sleeves. Armed with lit­tle more than a pop­si­cle, a decoy doll, and assort­ed puz­zle pieces, Niño pre­vails against a col­or­ful array of foes. La Llorona (the weep­ing woman), Cabeza Olme­ca (a sculpt­ed basalt head from the Olmec civ­i­liza­tion), and the ter­ri­fy­ing Gua­na­ju­a­to Mum­my are just a few of the char­ac­ters in this win­ning trib­ute to the the­atri­cal world of lucha libre. Cer­tain illus­tra­tions might be a bit scary for the youngest read­ers, but they are pre­sent­ed in a sil­ly way that make them less fright­en­ing and more fun. And lest you think that Niño has no seri­ous com­pe­ti­tion, rest assured that all bets are off once his lit­tle sis­ters, las her­man­i­tas, wake up from their nap…

Slow LorisSlow Loris by Alex­is Dea­con (Kane/Miller, 2002)

If you’ve ever been to the zoo, you prob­a­bly noticed that some ani­mals are just not that excit­ing. Or are they? This sto­ry delves into the dai­ly life of Slow Loris, an impos­si­bly bor­ing ani­mal who earns his name by spend­ing ten min­utes eat­ing a sat­suma, twen­ty min­utes going from one end of his branch to the oth­er, and a whole hour scratch­ing his bot­tom. But Slow Loris has a secret. At night, he gets up and does every­thing fast! When the oth­er zoo ani­mals get over their sur­prise at how wild Slow Loris real­ly is, they don’t hes­i­tate to join his all-night par­ty, which includes (among oth­er things) a mul­ti­tude of hats, col­or­ful ties, danc­ing, and an epic drum solo (by Slow Loris, of course). As you would imag­ine, it’s a slow day at the zoo after that as the par­ty ani­mals sleep off the pre­vi­ous night’s shenani­gans. Bor­ing!

Stop That Pickle!Stop That Pick­le! by Peter Armour, illus­trat­ed by Andrew Shachat (Houghton Mif­flin, 1993)

As fast as Slow Loris may be by night, I’m guess­ing he still couldn’t catch the run­away pick­le from Mr. Adolph’s deli. Rather than be eat­en by one Ms. Elmi­ra Deeds, this plucky pick­le leaps out of the jar and makes a break for it. Stop That Pick­le! is a delight­ful­ly wacky sto­ry of one pickle’s dar­ing escape and ulti­mate tri­umph over a host of oth­er foods try­ing to catch it. (And if you were won­der­ing if there is any sol­i­dar­i­ty in the food world, this book answers that ques­tion with a resound­ing NO.) 

When Mr. Adolph is imme­di­ate­ly over­whelmed by the pickle’s speed, a dis­grun­tled peanut but­ter and jel­ly sand­wich joins the chase. “Every­one knows that a peanut but­ter and jel­ly sand­wich is not the fastest sand­wich in the world, but it does have great endurance.” Page by page ten­sion builds as more foods join the pack, all shout­ing: Stop That Pick­le!. By the end of the book the pick­le is being pur­sued by not only the sand­wich (hel­lo, endurance!), but also a braid­ed pret­zel, green pip­pin apple, sev­en­teen toast­ed almonds, a crowd of raisins, a cake dough­nut, a cool grape soda, and an ele­gant vanil­la ice cream cone. How will our pick­le pre­vail??? The sto­ry cul­mi­nates in a back alley moment of truth which I won’t spoil for you, but rest assured that this pick­le lives to run anoth­er day. With its sat­is­fy­ing (yet total­ly inef­fec­tu­al) refrain, Stop That Pick­le! is a great read aloud book and will def­i­nite­ly make you think twice about the moral advis­abil­i­ty of skew­er­ing the last pick­le in the jar.

Sophie's SquashSophie’s Squash by Pat Ziet­low Miller, illus­trat­ed by Anne Wils­dorf (Schwartz & Wade Books, 2013)

When Sophie spots a but­ter­nut squash at the farm­ers’ mar­ket, it is love at first sight. Her squash is “just the right size to hold in her arms. Just the right size to bounce on her knee. Just the right size to love.” Final­ly, Sophie has found the per­fect friend! Except…her par­ents seem to want to eat her friend. “Don’t lis­ten, Ber­nice!” Sophie cries at the sug­ges­tion of cook­ing Ber­nice with marsh­mal­lows. And so Ber­nice becomes part of the fam­i­ly. She goes to sto­ry time at the library, rolls down hills, vis­its oth­er squash. Every­thing is fine until one day Ber­nice is not quite her­self. She starts look­ing spot­ty and her som­er­saults don’t have “their usu­al style.” What to do? This heart­warm­ing sto­ry is has a sim­ple, fun­ny sweet­ness to it as Sophie learns about being a loy­al friend and what it means to let go. Don’t miss the illus­trat­ed end­pa­pers which fea­ture Sophie in her unpar­al­leled squashy exu­ber­ance! This book also offers a sea­son­al­ly appro­pri­ate les­son: win­ter might seem like the end, but some­times it is only the begin­ning.  

How Tom Beat Captain NajorkHow Tom Beat Cap­tain Najork and His Hired Sports­men by Rus­sell Hoban, illus­trat­ed by Quentin Blake (Atheneum, 1974)

No self-respect­ing list of fun­ny pic­ture books would be com­plete with­out How Tom Beat Cap­tain Najork and his Hired Sports­men. This gem is from an era where pic­ture books were a bit longer, but that just means there is more hilar­i­ty here to enjoy. Tom is a boy who knows fool­ing around. He fools around “with sticks and stones and crum­pled paper, with mews­es and pas­sages and dust­bins, with bent nails and bro­ken glass and holes in fences.” You get the idea. He’s an expert.

This deeply trou­bles Aunt Fid­get Wonkham-Strong, a for­mi­da­ble woman in an iron hat who believes boys should spend their time mem­o­riz­ing pages from the Nau­ti­cal Almanac instead of doing things that sus­pi­cious­ly resem­ble play­ing. So she calls in Cap­tain Najork and his hired sports­men to teach Tom a les­son in fool­ing around. As you might imag­ine, Cap­tain Najork has wild­ly under­es­ti­mat­ed Tom’s exper­tise in these mat­ters and gets his come­up­pance accord­ing­ly. Quentin Blake’s won­der­ful­ly zany line draw­ings are the per­fect accom­pa­ni­ment to the hijinks of this weird and total­ly sat­is­fy­ing sto­ry. Greasy bloaters, any­one? There’s also some cab­bage-and-pota­to sog left. Some­how.

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Karen Cushman, the Girl in Men’s Underwear

Karen Cushman

Karen Cush­man

We wel­come the oppor­tu­ni­ty to talk with Karen Cush­man, New­bery Medal and Hon­or recip­i­ent for The Midwife’s Appren­tice and Cather­ine, Called Birdy, as well as his­tor­i­cal fic­tion set in the west­ern Unit­ed States. Her most recent nov­el is the fan­ta­sy Grayling’s Song. We look for­ward to talk­ing with Karen because her sense of humor is always in play, some­thing you’d expect from read­ing her books.

 Are you work­ing on a new man­u­script? (Care to offer a teas­er)?

I’m strug­gling my way through a book set in San Diego in 1941, short­ly before Pearl Har­bor. Here’s the begin­ning, or the begin­ning at the moment:

Jorge lift­ed the slimy crea­ture to his lips and bit it right between the eyes.

I shud­dered as I watched. “Doesn’t that taste mud­dy and dis­gust­ing?”

Nah,” he said, wip­ing mud from his mouth. “Is only salty. This way they don’t die but only sleep, stay fresh.” He threw the octo­pus into a buck­et and slipped through the mud flats to anoth­er hole in the muck. He filled a baster from a mud-spat­tered Clorox bot­tle and squirt­ed the bleach into a hole.

When the occu­pant slith­ered to the sur­face, Jorge pulled it out and bit it, too. “You want? Make good stew.”

I shook my head. I pre­ferred fish that came in cans and was mixed with mayo and chopped cel­ery.

 Elvis PresleyAre there par­tic­u­lar mem­o­ries of grow­ing up that, look­ing back, you see as lead­ing you toward a writ­ing career?

My first 17 or so years seemed to be lead­ing me to a writ­ing career. I wrote all the time: poems, short sto­ries, a 7-page nov­el, an epic poem cycle based on the life of Elvis (see the last ques­tion below). A lot of what I wrote was involved with cre­at­ing a world I’d like to live in star­ring a per­son I’d like to be.

Are there three books you’d rec­om­mend for gift-giv­ing in the upcom­ing hol­i­days?

I asked my daugh­ter, who works at Powell’s Book­store in Port­land and knows more about books than any­one. She rec­om­mend­ed three illus­trat­ed non­fic­tion titles. I plan to buy them for myself.

  • Atlas Obscu­ra (by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras, and Ella Mor­ton). A fas­ci­nat­ing tour guide to the strangest and most curi­ous places in the world: glow­worm caves in New Zealand, Turkmenistan’s 40-year hole of fire called the Gates of Hell, salt mines in Poland, a par­a­sitol­ogy muse­um, bone muse­ums in Italy.
  • David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work Now. Packed with infor­ma­tion on the inner work­ings of every­thing from wind­mills to Wi-Fi, this extra­or­di­nary book guides read­ers through the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples of machines and shows how the devel­op­ments of the past are build­ing the world of tomor­row. 
  • In the Com­pa­ny of Women (by Grace Bon­ney). Pho­tos and descrip­tions of inspir­ing, cre­ative women across the world who forged their own paths and suc­ceed­ed. 

Three book recommendations by Karen Cushman

What did you study in col­lege?

I entered col­lege as an Eng­lish major but quick­ly became enam­ored of the Clas­sics depart­ment because it was much small­er and more inter­est­ing and they had sher­ry par­ties every Fri­day after­noon. My final major was double—Greek and Eng­lish.

Did you tak­ing writ­ing class­es?

My uni­ver­si­ty had a grad­u­ate cre­ative writ­ing major but there was only one course for under­grad­u­ates. I took it, hat­ed it, and nev­er went. Peo­ple sat around and crit­i­cized each other’s work. Not for me. The night before the quar­ter was over, I stayed up all night and wrote twelve short sto­ries. The pro­fes­sor com­ment­ed that I seemed to have learned a lot dur­ing the class even though I nev­er came to class. Go fig­ure. That was my first and last writ­ing class.

men's boxers What was your first job?

I worked in the men’s socks and shorts depart­ment of a Tar­get-like store, where I was known as the girl in men’s under­wear.

What’s your strongest mem­o­ry of the 1950s?

Elvis. No ques­tion. I also remem­ber look­ing at all the unhap­py house­wives on our sub­ur­ban street, sip­ping mar­ti­nis and mak­ing lunch­es, and feared I would end up like that.  

PS:  I didn’t.

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Marsha Wilson Chall and Jill Davis

I recent­ly had the hon­or of inter­view­ing Mar­sha Wil­son Chall, the author of the new pic­ture book, The Secret Life of Fig­gy Mus­tar­do, and her edi­tor, Jill Davis.

Marsha Wilson ChallMar­sha Wil­son Chall grew up an only child in Min­neso­ta, where her father told her the best sto­ries. The author of many pic­ture books, includ­ing Up North at the Cab­in, One Pup’s Up, and Pick a Pup, Mar­sha teach­es writ­ing at Ham­line University’s MFAC pro­gram in St. Paul, Min­neso­ta. She lives on a small farm west of Min­neapo­lis with her hus­band, dog, barn cats, and books.

Jill DavisJill Davis has been an exec­u­tive edi­tor in children’s books at Harper­Collins since 2013. A vet­er­an of children’s books, she began her career at Ran­dom House in 1992, and worked there at Crown and Knopf Books For Young Read­ers until 1996, after which she worked at Viking until 2005. After that, she held posi­tions at both Blooms­bury and Far­rar, Straus & Giroux. She is the author of three pic­ture books, edi­tor of one col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, and has an MFA in Writ­ing for Chil­dren and Young Adults from Ham­line Uni­ver­si­ty

Secret Life of Fiiggy MustardoMark: The Secret Life of Fig­gy Mus­tar­do came about in a dif­fer­ent way than most pic­ture books. You were asked to write a sto­ry based on illus­tra­tions of a char­ac­ter. Could you tell us about this process and a lit­tle about the sto­ry?

Mar­sha: You’re right that this sto­ry evolved dif­fer­ent­ly than my oth­ers. My amaz­ing edi­tor, Jill Davis, sent me Ali­son Friend’s thumb­nails of an adorable canine char­ac­ter she had named Fig­gy Mus­tar­do in a vari­ety of human-like pos­es and cos­tumes. For me, it was love at first sight! So I set about the process of cre­at­ing Figgy’s sto­ry based on my impres­sions of him through Alison’s art and then, via Jill, Alison’s writ­ten notions of his char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and sto­ry ideas.

Alison FriendAn imag­i­na­tive, spir­it­ed fel­low, Ali­son visu­al­ized Fig­gy zip­ping through many adven­tures on his scoot­er. In the book, I took the lib­er­ty of chang­ing the scoot­er to a race car and also cast Fig­gy as a rock star and a piz­za chef who orga­nizes and stars in a neigh­bor­hood rock con­cert, pizze­ria, and stock car race with his ani­mal friends. Lots of Fig­gy fun, but this did not a sto­ry make. I need­ed to know why these activ­i­ties mat­tered to Fig­gy and how he grew as a char­ac­ter.

Secret Life of Figgy MustardoI also had to think about the nuts and bolts of how Fig­gy might trans­form from dog to dilet­tante. I was fair­ly cer­tain of my own dog’s bore­dom and lone­li­ness while our fam­i­ly is away, so I start­ed my sto­ry explo­ration there. We all know that dogs, as social crea­tures, dis­like being left alone and are often fraught with anx­i­ety lead­ing to cer­tain not-so-flat­ter­ing behav­iors and/or the escape of sleep. A sto­ry with a sleep­ing dog would not be too inter­est­ing, so I chose the much more excit­ing, destruc­tive route. What if Fig­gy ate things–any things–in his frus­tra­tion, fell asleep, and dreamed about him­self as a man­i­fes­ta­tion of what he ate? We all know “you are what you eat,” so in Figgy’s case, for exam­ple, he eats Mrs. Mustardo’s Bone Appetit mag­a­zine, falls asleep, and dreams of being Ital­ian Piz­za Chef Mus­tar­do serv­ing Muttsarel­lo and Figaro piz­zas to ador­ing gour­mands. When he wakes, he knows his dream is a sign, so he makes a real one of his own, “Free Piz­za,” and serves his entire ani­mal neigh­bor­hood at Figgy’s Pizze­ria.

Most impor­tant­ly, I need­ed to devel­op a moti­va­tion for Figgy’s adven­tures; how were these events con­nect­ed to him? What did they mean? How would they affect Figgy’s world out­side and inside? The answer arrived in the form of loss; every ani­mal neigh­bor came to Figgy’s con­cert and pizze­ria and car race except Figgy’s fam­i­ly, the Mus­tar­dos, espe­cial­ly George (his boy). In des­per­a­tion, Fig­gy cre­ates the sign “Free Dog” to find a fam­i­ly who will talk and walk and play with him like all the oth­er fam­i­lies he sees through his win­dow. Where are the Mus­tar­dos? The fam­i­ly Mus­tar­do arrives in time to show Fig­gy how much they care with a promise to take him wher­ev­er they can and to pro­vide him com­pan­ion­ship when they can’t in the form of new pup named Dot. Fig­gy and Dot go on to enliv­en the neigh­bor­hood with Free Shows night­ly.

Mark: What kind of revising/editing process did you and Jill go through?

Mar­sha: Once I knew my char­ac­ter and his prob­lem, I dashed off the sto­ry, sent it to Jill who loved it at first sight, then sat back sat­is­fied with a good day’s work.

Ha! Not the way it hap­pened, but I did write a first draft with­in a few days that Jill found promis­ing. So many drafts lat­er that I can’t even recall the orig­i­nal, Jill exer­cised plen­ty of patience wait­ing for the sto­ry she and Ali­son hoped I could write. I know she’ll protest my trib­ute, but I have nev­er worked with an edi­tor so open to my tri­al and error. Her abun­dant humor car­ried us through the process that I think would have oth­er­wise over­whelmed me.

Mark: Will there be any more books with Fig­gy and his fur­ther adven­tures?

Mar­sha: Fig­gy hopes so and so do Jill, Ali­son, and I. For now, I hope Fig­gy wags his way into the hands and hearts of many human friends where he belongs.

WOOF!

Mark: How was this project dif­fer­ent hav­ing a char­ac­ter first and then hav­ing to find a writer to tell his sto­ry?

The Secret Life of Figgy MustardoJill: It was kind of hard. The illus­tra­tor had invent­ed this lit­tle dog who she want­ed to be an adventurer—yet she wasn’t sure how to make the sto­ry hap­pen. When I saw the dog, I thought of Marsha’s One Pup’s Up—and I knew how tal­ent­ed she was. Seemed like a slam dunk! But all of us—Marsha, myself, and the illus­tra­tor, Ali­son Friend, had  to share plen­ty of feed­back, edit, and revise a bit before Mar­sha was able to tell both the sto­ry she envi­sioned as well as the sto­ry Ali­son had in mind. Mar­sha pic­tured Fig­gy at home, and real­ly loved the idea of using signs. Ali­son seemed to feel Fig­gy was some kind of James Bond. So how were those two visions going to meet? They final­ly did when Mar­sha real­ized that Fig­gy would go to sleep and dream about his excit­ing alter-ego. And we all loved the idea. The book may seem a lit­tle bit sad because Fig­gy is always being left at home, but Mar­sha told it in such a great way that Fig­gy showed his grit! If he’s hun­gry, he eats what’s there—but then the mag­ic hap­pens and he goes to sleep and dreams of some­thing relat­ed to what he ate. It’s so fun and so imag­i­na­tive. I love what Mar­sha did with Figgy’s sto­ry, and Ali­son did, too.

Mark: What was it like to work with Mar­sha in this new role as edi­tor after being her stu­dent in the MFA in Writ­ing for Chil­dren pro­gram at Ham­line Uni­ver­si­ty?

Jill: It felt very won­der­ful and nat­ur­al. Mar­sha does not use intim­i­da­tion as a tac­tic in gen­er­al. She’s the rare com­bi­na­tion of bril­liant and super sil­ly. That’s one rea­son she’s so loved at Ham­line and in the con­ti­nen­tal Unit­ed States, gen­er­al­ly speak­ing.

There were times when she should have been frus­trat­ed or want­ed to spit at me, but she was cool as a cucum­ber in the freez­er in the North Pole. So pro­fes­sion­al and what I loved also about work­ing with her is how much I learned. I learned how she makes use of rep­e­ti­tion, allit­er­a­tion, and very care­ful edit­ing. I can be slop­py, but Mar­sha walked straight out of Strunk and White. She’s exact and won­der­ful­ly detail-ori­ent­ed. She was also involved at the sketch stage. Actu­al­ly at sev­er­al sketch stages. We worked on the phone, we worked at Ham­line, and we worked until we thought it felt per­fect. And she loved it because she could use it in her teach­ing! And I just loved work­ing with Mar­sha!

Mark:  Thank you Mar­sha and Jill for tak­ing the time to tell us about your col­lab­o­ra­tion on The Secret Life of Fig­gy Mus­tar­do. The book is now avail­able at everyone’s local inde­pen­dent book store.

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Laughing All the Way

The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill BrysonI fin­ished read­ing The Road to Lit­tle Drib­bling over a week ago, and I’m still laugh­ing.

I’m a suck­er for a fun­ny sto­ry, and Bill Bryson has pro­vid­ed me with a steady stream of them since I first dis­cov­ered him in Gran­ta mag­a­zine back in the ’80s. I couldn’t get enough of his wise­crack­ing tales about grow­ing up in Des Moines, espe­cial­ly the epic fam­i­ly road trips he endured.

His lat­est book, in which he more or less recre­ates the mean­der­ings around and mus­ings about Britain’s quirky cor­ners that he mined so suc­cess­ful­ly in Notes from a Small Island four decades ago, deliv­ered just the dose of laughs I need­ed to off­set a par­tic­u­lar­ly intense stretch at work. Humor is a first-rate anti­dote to any num­ber of things, I’ve found, includ­ing stress. This is why I also own a well-worn copy of the DVD Fer­ris Bueller’s Day Off

Mr. Mysterious & CompanyI dis­cov­ered humor between the cov­ers of a book ear­ly, when I first read Sid Fleischman’s Mr. Mys­te­ri­ous & Com­pa­ny as a child. Mr. Fleischman’s sto­ry not only had me laugh­ing in delight, but also man­aged to worm its way deep into my psy­che, pop­ping out decades lat­er when I had chil­dren of my own and inau­gu­rat­ed a unique Fred­er­ick twist on Fleischman’s Abra­cadabra Day. Read Mr. Mys­te­ri­ous & Com­pa­ny and you’ll get the idea.

A few years after dis­cov­er­ing Fleis­chman, I stum­bled across a P. G. Wode­house anthol­o­gy on my grandfather’s book­shelf. I was 12 or so, and enor­mous­ly pleased with myself for appre­ci­at­ing Wodehouse’s spe­cial brand of British humor. (Of course it helped that I had just returned to the U.S. from a stretch liv­ing in Eng­land.)  His nim­ble style! His flaw­less com­ic tim­ing! And oh, his char­ac­ters! What bud­ding writer could pos­si­bly resist Bertie Wooster’s sub­stan­tial Aunt Dahlia, who fit­ted into his biggest arm­chair “as if it had been built round her by some­one who knew they were wear­ing arm­chairs tight about the hips that sea­son”? Or how about his for­mi­da­ble Aunt Agatha, whom the feck­less Bertie described as wear­ing “barbed wire next to the skin”? And then there was that pig named the Empress of Bland­ings…. I was a goner.

Years lat­er, I read some­where that when Wodehouse’s fam­i­ly heard him chuck­ling in his study as he wrote, they knew the work was going well. I seem to recall read­ing the same thing about Sid Fleis­chman. I don’t know whether Mr. Bryson’s fam­i­ly hears him laugh­ing, too, but I hope my fam­i­ly hears me. Not all my books are humor­ous, but near­ly all of them have humor­ous moments, and when some­thing I write strikes me as fun­ny and I make myself laugh, I think of writ­ers like P. G. Wode­house and Sid Fleis­chman and oth­ers who have trav­eled this path before me, and I know I’m in good com­pa­ny.

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The Odious Ogre

The Odious OgreI’m a big fan of Phan­tom Toll­booth by Nor­ton Juster, illus­trat­ed by Jules Feif­fer. I can remem­ber read­ing it as a kid and think­ing it both hilar­i­ous and clever. And I loved the words! So many words!

So when the Juster-Feif­fer team came out with The Odi­ous Ogre a few years back, I leapt at it. A pic­ture book! A long pic­ture book! My favorite kind! Full of long words and clever phrasings—it is a hoot. I’ve read it to pre-school­ers through middle-schoolers—they and their adults laugh.

The Odi­ous Ogre lives on his rep­u­ta­tion mostly—and it’s a ghast­ly rep­u­ta­tion. He was, it was wide­ly believed, extra­or­di­nar­i­ly large, exceed­ing­ly ugly, unusu­al­ly angry, con­stant­ly hun­gry, and absolute­ly mer­ci­less.

At least that was his reputation—it’s what every­one thought or sup­posed or had heard or read …. As Juster says: No ogre ever had it so good. He ter­ror­ized the sur­round­ing vil­lages and every­one just … well, let him. They thought it was hope­less, that there was noth­ing they could do.

No one can resist me, says the Ogre. I am invul­ner­a­ble, impreg­nable, insu­per­a­ble, inde­fati­ga­ble, insur­mount­able …. He had an impres­sive vocab­u­lary hav­ing acci­dent­ly swal­lowed a large dic­tio­nary while eat­ing the head librar­i­an in one of the neigh­bor­ing towns.

Now I know there are those who will read that sen­tence of won­der­ful i-words and and the detail of eat­ing librar­i­ans and they will think one of two things (if not both): There’s a vocab list! OR, why would she read that to pre-school­ers?!

My hus­band just looked over my shoul­der at the illus­tra­tions and said, “Wow. That looks vio­lent.” And there are vio­lent scenes, to be sure. (Although they’re pic­tures in sweet pen and inky water col­ors, so the impact is soft­ened.) The best scene is when the ogre throws a tem­per tantrum, leap­ing and hurl­ing him­self around the gar­den of a com­plete­ly unflap­pable young girl out­side of her beflow­ered cot­tage. She’d just offered him tea. And muffins. This floors the ogre. He wor­ries that his rep­u­ta­tion might be in jeop­ardy. So he bel­lows and stomps and blus­ters. He gri­maces and twitch­es and snorts, all while belch­ing, claw­ing and drool­ing in an attempt to fright­en the imper­turbable young woman. There’s a two-page spread of his reign of ter­ror. The chil­dren adore it. The younger they are, the more they delight in it.

gr_odious_ogre_tantrum

The girl is at first over­whelmed. Then she recov­ers her­self, sets down her plate of muffins and applauds with great enthu­si­asm for a full minute.

What fun, how mag­i­cal, how won­der­ful!” she exclaimed. “Would you con­sid­er doing that for the orphans’ pic­nic next week? I know the chil­dren would love it.”

It sim­ply doesn’t mat­ter that the three-year-olds can­not define all of the words. They know exact­ly what is going on—they’ve thrown such spec­ta­cles them­selves, after all! They think it hilar­i­ous that the young woman wants the ogre to do it again on pur­pose.

Tucked in my copy of The Odi­ous Ogre, I have sheets that I made that fold into a wee lit­tle book. It helps the kids to write their own sto­ry about  (Name) , The Most (adjec­tive) Ogre. It asks them to name their ogre, describe their ogre, draw the ogre-y face, describe the ogre’s voice and sounds ….

Kids love this activ­i­ty! At first I thought it was the size of the book (maybe 2 inch­es by 3 inch­es). But I actu­al­ly think it’s the words. They come up with such cre­ative words after hear­ing such the­sauras­tic strings of adjec­tives from Juster. They name their ogres things like Chris­til­li­blly and Amdropis­ti­ly. They describe their ogres with words like humun­go, tiz­zl­ly, and grub­bling. They use all the crayons in the box when they draw their ogre’s por­trait, and they change their own lit­tle voic­es in the most amaz­ing ways to let me hear how their ogre sounds.

Big words, long ram­bly sen­tences, large art spreads—this is a great book for kids of all ages. I stand by my call for the longer pic­ture book. I wish Juster and Feif­fer would do a series for my per­son­al sto­ry­time plea­sure.

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Bookstorm™: Turn Left at the Cow

 

Turn Left at the Cow

Turn Left at the CowWho doesn’t love a mys­tery? Whether your find them intrigu­ing puz­zles or can’t-wait-to-know-the-solution page-turn­ers, a good mys­tery is engross­ing and a lit­tle tense. Throw in a lit­tle humor, a detailed set­ting, and well-drawn char­ac­ters and you have a book you can con­fi­dent­ly hand to young read­ers who are already hooked on the genre and those who have yet to become fans.

We are pleased to fea­ture Turn Left at the Cow as our May book selec­tion, writ­ten by the expert plot­ter Lisa Bullard, replete with her char­ac­ter­is­tic humor.

In each Book­storm™, we offer a bib­li­og­ra­phy of books that have close ties to the the fea­tured book. You’ll find books, arti­cles, and videos for a vari­ety of tastes and inter­ests. This month, we’re focus­ing on books for mid­dle grade read­ers with mys­ter­ies, humor, and bank heists. 

Downloadables

 

 

Don’t miss the excep­tion­al resources on the author’s web­site. Try your hand at but­ter carv­ing with “But­ter Head Beau­ties,” engag­ing sci­ence, art, and lan­guage arts skills. Re-cre­ate the book’s chick­en poop bin­go with “Chances Are,” call­ing on math and lan­guage arts. Lisa Bullard’s Pin­ter­est page has more great ideas that you’ll find use­ful as you incor­po­rate this book into your plan­ning.

BOOKSTORM TOPICS

Mid­dle Grade Mys­ter­ies. There are amaz­ing books writ­ten for this age group. We’ve includ­ed a list that would help you select read-alikes or com­pan­ion books, draw­ing on titles first print­ed in 1929 (yes, real­ly) to 2015.

But­ter Heads and Oth­er State Fair Strange­ness. A but­ter head is one of the atten­tion-wor­thy objects in the book. Begin an online research assign­ment with a few arti­cles about but­ter heads around the coun­try.

Fish Out of Water. Travis lives in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia. When he runs away to his grandmother’s cab­in in north­ern Min­neso­ta, it walks and talks like a dif­fer­ent world, one that Travis has to learn to nav­i­gate if he’s going to solve the mys­tery.

Miss­ing Par­ent. Even though Travis left his moth­er behind with her new hus­band, Travis is most inter­est­ed in find­ing out about his dad, who died before he was born. Books for this age group often revolve around a par­ent or par­ents who are not present. We’ve rec­om­mend­ed a few of them. 

Rob­beries and Heists. Travis has trou­ble believ­ing his father could have robbed a bank but the towns­peo­ple seem to think so. We’ve includ­ed books that delin­eate bank or train rob­beries, some of them true.

Small Town Fes­ti­vals. One of the most excit­ing scenes in Turn Left at the Cow takes place in Green Lake, Minnesota’s annu­al sum­mer fes­ti­val where chick­en poop bin­go is a tra­di­tion. We’ve found arti­cles about oth­er small town fes­ti­vals that would make good writ­ing prompts, research projects, or Pow­er­Point projects.

Mys­ter­ies offer a spe­cial plea­sure to many read­ers, both chil­dren and adults. They pro­vide an excel­lent oppor­tu­ni­ty to talk about plot and how that plot is rein­forced by intrigu­ing char­ac­ters (and good writ­ing!).

Let us know how you are mak­ing use of this Book­storm™. Share your ideas and any oth­er books you’d add to this Book­storm™.

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Beverly Cleary

Beverly Cleary, 1971

Bev­er­ly Cleary, 1971

For the last month I have been read­ing arti­cles, toasts, essays, and inter­views with one of my favorite authors of all time: Bev­er­ly Cleary. She turned 100 years old this week. Every­thing I read about her makes me misty-eyed—the birth­day plans in her home state of Ore­gon … her mem­o­ries of being in the low­est read­ing group, the Black­birds, in ele­men­tary school … that she writes while bak­ing bread … how she named her char­ac­ters … that she was a “well-behaved girl” but she often thought like Ramona (me, too!!!) … the fan mail she still receives in a steady stream … SIGH.

My sec­ond grade teacher, Mrs. Perkins, read us Ramona the Brave. It was a new book that year—she used it to show us how to open a brand-new book and “break in” the bind­ing so that the pages would turn eas­i­ly. She told us that it was part of a series and I remem­ber being out of sorts that she would start mid-series, but then I was so engrossed in the sto­ry that I dropped my grudge.

Reading Is FundamentalMy ele­men­tary school was a RIF (Read­ing Is Fun­da­men­tal) school. RIF day was eas­i­ly my favorite day of the year. I under­stood that RIF exist­ed to put books in the hands of kids who would not oth­er­wise own books. I had books at home, though many of my class­mates did not, and I was always a lit­tle ner­vous that some­how I would be excluded—what if some­one report­ed my lit­tle book­shelf, or the fact that I received a book every birth­day? What if I was pulled aside—not allowed to go pick a book?! But it nev­er hap­pened. No ques­tions asked—just encour­age­ment to pick a book of my very own. RIF Bliss!

Ramona the PestThat sec­ond-grade-year, when my class went down to the entrance lob­by of the school to vis­it the tables and tables piled with books (this remains my image of abun­dance), the very first book I saw was Ramona the Pest. I knew it had to be relat­ed to Ramona the Brave, and was proud to have the pres­ence of mind—my heart beat hard in the excite­ment of my discovery!—to con­firm that the author’s name, Bev­er­ly Cleary, was list­ed under the title. Mrs. Cleary lived in Ore­gon, Mrs. Perkins said. It was a place so far away from cen­tral Illi­nois that I was sur­prised one of her books could have made its way to our RIF tables. I scooped it up and car­ried it around with me as I perused all of the oth­er books. We were allowed to choose only one book, but none of the oth­ers even came close to tempt­ing me to put down Ramona the Pest.

illustration by Louis Darling

illus­tra­tion by Louis Dar­ling

I’m astound­ed when I look at lists of Bev­er­ly Cleary’s books and their pub­li­ca­tion dates. She start­ed the Ramona series in 1955. My moth­er was nine years old! The last in the series, Ramona’s World, was writ­ten when my son was two, in 1999. And that’s just the Ramona books! What a career! At least three gen­er­a­tions have read and loved Cleary’s books.

I still have that lit­tle trade-paper­back book. It’s well worn—I read it many times as a kid. And I read it to my kids, too, of course. It’s the only Ramona book I own—through all of the cov­er changes and box sets, I’ve just stuck with my one lit­tle RIF book.

I might change that this week, though. I think per­haps I’ll buy myself a boxed set of Ramona and make a dona­tion to RIF in Bev­er­ly Cleary’s hon­or.

Hap­py Birth­day, Bev­er­ly Cleary!

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Feeling Cranky

Phyl­lis: Feb­ru­ary is the month for lovers and for love. And it’s the month where some of us also get a lit­tle grumpy. Gray slushy snow—no good for ski­ing or build­ing snow people—lines the streets. The weight of win­ter coats wears old. And even though we do love Feb­ru­ary, we thought we’d look at books about grumpiness—just in case any­one else might feel a lit­tle, well, cranky once in a while.

Crankee DoodleCran­kee Doo­dle by Tom Angle­berg­er with pic­tures by Cece Bell, stretch­es the con­ven­tions of pic­ture books with art and text in dia­logue bal­loons depict­ing a con­ver­sa­tion between a sol­dier and his horse. “We could go to town,” the horse cheer­i­ly pro­pos­es. Cran­kee Doodle’s response? A long list of rea­sons NOT to go. Each of the horse’s sug­ges­tions, to go shop­ping, buy a feath­er, get a new hat, is met with more neg­a­tiv­i­ty. “Shop­ping? I hate shop­ping … I might as well throw my mon­ey down an out­house hole.” Cran­kee Doo­dle over­steps a line when the horse offers to car­ry him to town and Cran­kee says, “No way. You smell ter­ri­ble.” See­ing how much he has hurt his horse’s feel­ings, Cran­kee capit­u­lates, and they dri­ve to town with Cran­kee yelling “Yee-HAW!” out the car win­dow. “Nice hat,” “the horse tells Cran­kee in the last spread where they are hap­pi­ly laden with pur­chas­es. “Thanks, pal,” Cran­kee replies.

For a day when you or your kids feel cranky, read­ing this book out loud and throw­ing your­self into the crank­i­ness can be cathar­tic. And just plain fun. 

Jack­ie: I love the way this sto­ry ties into the song Yan­kee Doo­dle. Cran­kee Doo­dle, the grumpy broth­er to the orig­i­nal, doesn’t want to go to town, (espe­cial­ly not rid­ing a pony), doesn’t want a feath­er for his hat, and refus­es to call his hat “mac­a­roni” (lasagna, maybe, but def­i­nite­ly not mac­a­roni). A read­ing of this sto­ry should always be pre­ced­ed by a singing of the song.

Man Who Enjoyed GrumblingPhyl­lis: The Man Who Enjoyed Grum­bling by Mar­garet Mahy, with illus­tra­tions by Wendy Hod­der (pub­lished in 1987 and found on the used book rack of an Allen Coun­ty pub­lic library). fea­tures scratchy Mr. Ratch­ett, who enjoys a good grum­ble. His neigh­bors, the Goat fam­i­ly, give him plen­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ty to grum­ble at them.

The Goat fam­i­ly liked mak­ing trou­ble.
They bunt­ed and bleat­ed.
They nib­bled his hedge.
Some­times they put their horns down
And chased the cat.

One day the Goat fam­i­ly, want­i­ng more room for jump­ing around and tired of their scratchy neigh­bor, move to the high hills. Mr. Ratch­ett tries to find sat­is­fac­tion in the peace and qui­et but, with­out his neigh­bors to grum­ble at, things are too qui­et. “Trust those Goats to go off and have a good time,” he grum­bles. “They don’t spare a thought for the poor old man next door.”

Up in the hills the Goat fam­i­ly, too, finds things too qui­et. “We like mak­ing trou­ble and we need a scratchy neigh­bor close by,” they tell Mr. Ratch­ett when they move back in next door. Mr. Ratch­ettt does a lit­tle grumbler’s tap dance where the Goats can’t see him because “he was so glad they were back.”

Jack­ie: This book is so much fun to read out loud:“They bunt­ed and bleated./They nib­bled his hedge.”

And it’s packed full of great words and phras­es: Scratchy Mr. Ratch­ett (as he is always called in this book) wears “moan­ing boots.” And he believes “A man needs a bit of grum­bling to bring a sparkle to his eyes.”

Worst Person in the WorldPhyl­lis: James Steven­son’s The Worst Per­son in the World has a yard full of poi­son ivy, yells at any­one who comes near his house, eats lemons for break­fast (“Ugh! Too sweet!”), and hits flow­ers with his umbrel­la. When the Worst encoun­ters the ugli­est thing in the world, who has a self-con­fessed “pleas­ing per­son­al­i­ty,” Ugly enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly plans a par­ty in the Worst’s house with dec­o­ra­tions, cake, par­ty hats, and invi­ta­tions to the neigh­bor­hood chil­dren. The Worst tells Ugly he wants no par­ty, no chil­dren, and no Ugly. The crest­fall­en Ugly leaves, but the Worst even­tu­al­ly finds a striped par­ty hat in the cor­ner and tries it on. “Hmmm,” he says, and goes off to find Ugly and the chil­dren to invite them back to a par­ty. Steven­son doesn’t trans­form his char­ac­ter into a sun­shiney per­son, but the Worst does have a smile on his face as he leads every­one back to his house.

Jack­ie: James Steven­son is so fun­ny! Ugly recites the old saw, “if you’ve got a pleas­ing per­son­al­i­ty that’s all that counts,” in such a dead­pan and earnest way that some­how empha­sizes the clichéd qual­i­ty. I almost think Steven­son invent­ed Ugly so he could use that line.

He, like Mar­garet Mahy, is fun­ny in the way he uses lan­guage. The par­ty is not just a par­ty. When the Worst asks what he’s doing Ugly replies, “Get­ting ready for the big she­bang!” Shebang—much more fun than a par­ty.

You are right, Phyl­lis, that the Worst con­tin­ues to be grumpy right up until the end of the sto­ry, but we know it’s not quite the same lev­el of grumpi­ness because he’s changed. At the begin­ning of the sto­ry he looks right at their ball and tells the kids he hasn’t seen it. At the end he looks at it and returns it to them.

The Worst is the grump we love to laugh at, so this seems like just the right amount of change. We don’t want him to total­ly reform.

Phyl­lis: Stevenson’s oth­er Worst books include The Worst Per­son in the World at Crab Beach, The Worst Goes South, The Worst Person’s Christ­mas, and Worse than the Worst. In all of the books Stevenson’s scratchy illus­tra­tions cap­ture the Worst’s crank­i­ness in his per­son and his sur­round­ings. By the end of each book, if he’s not smil­ing, the Worst’s frown has at least relaxed a lit­tle.

James Stevenson Worst Books

Jack­ie: My favorite of those I have read on this list is The Worst Goes South. Worst leaves home to avoid a fall fes­ti­val next door—way too much hog-call­ing and pol­ka music. He’s the first guest since 1953 in the motel he finds. The own­er says, “Clean [your room] your­self. And don’t be both­er­ing me for tow­els and soap and all that non­sense … don’t be whin­ing for break­fast, … this is not some fan­cy spoil-you-rot­ten hotel.” It turns out that there are two Worsts. And the motel own­er is Worst’s broth­er, Ervin.

Phyl­lis: Stevenson’s Worst books can be hard to put your hands on—within a large met­ro­pol­i­tan library sys­tem The Worst Per­son in the World was only avail­able from an out­state library. But his books, along with Cran­kee Doo­dle and The Man Who Enjoyed Grum­bling, will put a smile on the cranki­est face.

Jack­ie: The Worst books that I found came from Gal­latin, Mis­souri, New­ton, Iowa, and Waver­ly, Iowa. These are not books we can read on a whim, at least not now. Get­ting them requires advance plan­ning. I wish some pub­lish­er would reprint these books.

Phyl­lis: Spring is on the way, but Feb­ru­ary has much to cel­e­brate: love, lovers, friends, and per­haps the chance, once in a while, to enjoy being just a lit­tle cranky.

Jack­ie: Phyl­lis and I were actu­al­ly a lit­tle cranky about how hard it was to find the Worst books and The Man Who Enjoyed Grum­bling. I could not find it nor suc­cess­ful­ly order it. Phyl­lis had to read it to me over Skype. As we said, we’d love to see them reprint­ed. Are there books that you love that you can’t find eas­i­ly, that you think should be reprint­ed? Let us know in the com­ments below. We want to start a list.

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Mrs. Noodlekugel and Four Blind Mice

Mrs. Noodlekugel and Four Blind Mice

The woman who cuts my hair, Amy, had a par­tic­u­lar­ly hard sum­mer the year her boys had just learned to read. Their school asked that she keep them read­ing over the sum­mer, but there were only so many Mag­ic Tree­house books she want­ed them to read. What oth­er books would be suit­able? The min­utes flew […]

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I Am Cow, Hear Me MOO!

I Am Cow, Hear Me MOO!

There has been a lot writ­ten about the brav­ery of cows (no, there hasn’t). Some of it has star­tled us with the sheer audac­i­ty of amaz­ing feats of der­ring-do of which cows are capa­ble (News at 10!). Young chil­dren every­where are pin­ning up cow posters on their bed­room walls, hop­ing to one day be as […]

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Planet Kindergarten

Planet Kindergarten

Books about get­ting ready for kinder­garten and the first day in that Strange New Land are plen­ti­ful, but I can’t recall one that has drawn me into the expe­ri­ence as ful­ly as Plan­et Kinder­garten does. Every aspect of this book, from word choice to sto­ry to the detailed and clever draw­ings, puts this book at […]

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Return of Zita the Spacegirl

The Return of Zita the Spacegirl

Ben Hatke can’t con­ceive of, write, and draw these sto­ries fast enough for me—and a host of oth­er fans. Just released, this book fol­lows Zita the Space­girl (2010) and Leg­ends of Zita the Space­girl (2012). Doing the math, I know I won’t be read­ing the next install­ment until 2016. Whah­hh. I’ve read so many sto­ries […]

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Space Taxi

Space Taxi: Archie Takes Flight Wendy Mass and Michael Braw­er, illus by Elise Grav­el Lit­tle, Brown Books for Young Read­ers What a hoot! When eight-year-old Archie Morn­ingstar gets up ear­ly in the morn­ing for his first Take Your Kid to Work Day, he nev­er imag­ines that his taxi-dri­v­ing dad in their rick­ety cab is actu­al­ly […]

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Gifted: Up All Night

My moth­er had the knack of giv­ing me a book every Christ­mas that kept me up all night … after I had opened it on Christ­mas Eve. I par­tic­u­lar­ly remem­ber the “oh-boy-it’s-dark-outside” year that I received The Lord of the Rings and accom­pa­nied the hob­bits into Woody End where they first meet the Nazgul, the […]

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Books Plus: The Goods by McSweeney’s

The Goods by McSweeney’s: Games and Activ­i­ties for Big Kids, Lit­tle Kids, and Medi­um-Size Kids edit­ed by Mac Bar­nett and Bri­an McMullen fea­tur­ing Adam Rex, Jon Sci­esz­ka, and more Big Pic­ture Press, an imprint of Can­dlewick Press, 2013 For your hol­i­day gift-giv­ing con­sid­er­a­tion … An over­sized book filled with every imag­in­able dis­trac­tion, this should be […]

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Gifted: Arlo’s ARTrageous Adventure!

Arlo’s ARTra­geous Adven­tures! writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by David LaRochelle Ster­ling Children’s Pub­lish­ing, 2013 If you’re con­sid­er­ing gifts for the hol­i­day sea­son … (book #1 in our series of Gift­ed rec­om­men­da­tions) … No mat­ter how unin­ter­est­ing Arlo’s elder­ly rel­a­tive insists on mak­ing their trip to the muse­um with her warn­ings to be seri­ous and qui­et and […]

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Anatomy of a Series: Topps League Books

We’re in post-sea­­son, when a lot of fans start to look wild-eyed, won­der­ing how they’ll hang on for three months until spring train­ing starts in Feb­ru­ary. Here in Min­neso­ta, it’s tough for sand­lot base­ball or Lit­tle League games to be played in the snow with an icy base­line. Young fans can keep up the momen­tum […]

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Coffee, coffee, coffee

I’ve been spend­ing a good amount of time in cof­fee shops late­ly, work­ing. It’s iron­ic for me to be grab­bing Wi-Fi juice in these ubiq­ui­tous icons of con­tem­po­rary society—I haven’t ever tast­ed cof­fee. The whirring and smells and steam and ded­i­cat­ed caf­feine hunters make it a chal­lenge for me, but I’ve always been com­fort­able with […]

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The Nature of Humor

I’ve been pon­der­ing the many ques­tions I have about the nature of humor as the Chap­ter & Verse Book Clubs pre­pare to dis­cuss next week the book Fun­ny Busi­ness: Con­ver­sa­tions with Writ­ers of Com­e­dy, com­piled and edit­ed by Leonard S. Mar­cus (Can­dlewick Press). Wher­ev­er we go, teach­ers and librarians—and parents—ask for more fun­ny and light-heart­ed […]

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